Vol 1, No 20
8 November 1999
C Z E C H R E P U B L I C:
Moral Education & Moral Welfare in Czech Universities
Before 1989, all students at Czech universities took courses in political subjects which aimed - amongst other things - at influencing students' moral thinking. After 1989 there was a strong reaction against this and university managers, academics and students swept away anything that seemed to attempt to impose political or moral control. The universities did not, for example, see it as their role to set up compulsory courses introducing students to market economics, democratic institutions or business ethics. The universities themselves have struggled to adapt to post-1989 reality and to define post-1989 morality, and have given very little moral guidance to their students.
Ten years later, Czech universities are less sure that moral education lies outside their field of responsibility; the need to pay attention to the welfare of students is becoming clearer. The low ethical standards in post-1989 Czech politics and business also indicate a possible role for higher education in attempting to raise moral standards in commerce, industry and politics. However, there is still no question of introducing a compulsory course in Civics, for example, for all students. It is more likely that an increasing number of lecturers will decide to increase the element of ethics in the courses that they already teach. Some departments may decide it is appropriate to introduce a course in professional ethics as an optional or even as a required course. (In general, Czech academics and university departments can vary course content quite freely).
Czech universities generally follow the Central European tradition of Akademische Freiheit (academic freedom), in which the university attempts to draw a strict line between a student's or a staff member's academic welfare (which it does get involved in) and a student's or a staff member's social and moral welfare (which is his or her own business). Given the history of political interference in the Czech universities, the importance attached to academic freedom is understandable. However, the American and British tradition, in which the university regards itself as responsible for the student's academic and moral welfare, is now exerting an influence throughout Central Europe.
Since 1989, the economic pressure on Czech students (and on their parents) has become much more acute. Economic expectations (e.g., foreign holidays) have risen much more quickly than parents' incomes. The cost of living for a student has risen sharply. Before 1989 it was rare for a student to have a job during the semester; nowadays, it is normal.
The moral pressure has also risen. There is greater criminality, and greater exposure of young people to gambling, drugs, quasi-religious cults, etc. This has caused many parents and many university staff (university staff are often parents of students!) to question "academic freedom" and to reconsider the role of the university in the moral welfare of students.
An important, visible outcome of the economic and moral pressures on Czech students is that attrition rates are extremely high. The high standards required by examiners, the curious features of university admissions procedures / university funding, and the elitist attitudes of the Czech intelligentsia also contribute to this. A large proportion of students take more than the prescribed minimum time to complete their course of studies.
There is now some interest in American and British systems in which each student is assigned a tutor, who - at least theoretically - checks that the student is attending classes and studying successfully, and helps him / her to deal with any social or moral problems that may arise. There is also interest in professionally trained student counsellors, whose job is to give advice and practical help to students with a wide range of problems. It is noted that drop-out rates and delayed course completion are less problematic in American and British universities (though of course they are a cause for concern in those countries too).
Tuition fees have now been introduced in the Czech Republic for students whose studies take over one year more than the nominal length of their study programme. It is very likely that all students will pay tuition within the next few years. The introduction of fees will probably increase pressure from parents and students to make the universities more accountable for student performance. The government, and society in general, will want the universities to demonstrate more clearly and more measurably that they care for the well-being and success of their students, and that they are giving good value for the funding that they receive. As confidence in the democratic process rises in the Czech Republic, more voices will be raised challenging all publicly-funded institutions, including universities, to demonstrate a higher level of accountability to society.
In what can now be seen as an excessive reaction against the intrusiveness of the state prior to 1989, Czech universities have to a great extent neglected the moral welfare of their students. The need to make more help and moral guidance available to vulnerable young adults, many of them living away from home, has become clear. The question is, what form will this guidance take, and how rapidly will it develop? It is likely that in the near future formal student counselling will become a service that is provided as a matter of course at faculty or university level, and that departments and faculties will establish formal systems for supervising the moral welfare of their students. The university will also get more involved in career counselling. Indeed, some faculties are already working on this. While it is unlikely that students will be required to take courses in Civics, many individual teachers will decide that the ethical component of the courses that they teach needs to be strengthened.
Robin Healey, 1 November 1999
The author works in the international office at the Czech Technical University in Prague.
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